Video conferencing has been good-but-not-great for church gatherings. The technology was really designed for meetings, where one person at a time speaks and everyone else listens. 

Breakout rooms help, but they are still a little clunky — it’s not like a fellowship hall or church basement where it’s easy to mix and mingle, or to find a quiet spot with just one person for a private, meaningful conversation. 

With hundreds of churches using Altar Live since the end of 2020, we’ve seen a few things that work well to help build and sustain community online. 

9 Effective Ways To Use Video Conferencing to Strengthen Small Teams and Deepen Church Engagement

1. Pre-Service Prayer Team

Some churches have teams who gather early to pray for day’s services. Prior to COVID-19, they often met in a private room at the church, essentially invisible to churchgoers. Now, they meet online, and it is easy to open the prayer gathering to anyone who would like to join. 

The visibility of the prayer team within the context of the church service itself lowers the barrier to joining spontaneously and without invitation. For someone who has never thought to join the prayer team, and who also has never been invited, a message in chat that says, “If you arrive early, come join the prayer team at the Prayer table.”  All it takes now is a click, and you’re on the prayer team, thanks to video conferencing.

With the prevalence and ease of video conferencing, church prayer teams have limited their barriers to membership. Now, anyone can join, anytime! Click To Tweet

2. Turn To Your Neighbor and…

During the welcome of a typical meeting or church service, it’s common for a leader to exhort the seated congregation: “Turn to your neighbor and share with them ______” — fill in the blank.  Your summer vacation destination. Your favorite Christmas memory. A time you were afraid. The last picture on your phone. 

In person, these greetings sometimes are fun and help eliminate social barriers. And sometimes they are awkward. 

Online, they don’t work well at all. How do you figure out who is your neighbor? Who’s sitting next to whom? It’s just not practical. Even worse, if you assign people to breakout rooms, now they are thrown into a group of people they didn’t choose to sit next to. Talk about awkward. 

The dynamic changes when you can choose with whom you sit — or even if you sit at all. After getting acquainted in a video conference setting, we have seen people naturally — and willingly! — sit in rows of three or four, and respond gladly to the opportunity to make direct contact with each other. In fact, we have sometimes seen some energetic types skip over to some other rows and say hello to friends and acquaintances to hear their favorite Christmas memory or vacation destination.

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3. Discuss among yourselves

Many pastors have re-thought the format of their sermons. Shorter sermons are better. We’ve also seen online church services where the pastor poses questions to the congregation. This is a highly engaging technique that captures people’s attention, and drives home the point of the sermon. 

For example, during a sermon on prayer, the pastor may ask, “When was a time you struggled in your prayer life? Think about this privately, or talk about it with the person next to you.” This is no mere ice-breaker question about a Christmas memory. This is much deeper, and challenging. In the online format of a video conference, it is quite practical to allow a full two or three minutes for this kind of reflection question. 

This probably would not work in the building, if only because of the audible buzz of dozens or hundreds of quiet conversations. And it fails for obvious privacy reasons too. But, in a video conferencing session among two or three people, privacy and relational context are built in, and thoughtful, vulnerable, meaningful responses are common. 

4. Passing of the peace

In person, people turn to their neighbor, make eye contact, reach out their hand, and reverently and smilingly offer each other Christ’s peace. 

Online, it’s not the same. You can say “Peace!” to the entire online congregation. That’s fine. But it lacks all that eye contact and body language. 

When a video conference gathering includes just three or four people, this part of the liturgy feeds the soul. They look someone in the face and express unity in Christ’s peace. 

Yes, you can pass the peace virtually. In fact, small group video conferencing experiences allows you to look someone directly in the eye and sincerely offer Christ's peace to them. Click To Tweet

5. Meet the Pastor

In almost every single Altar Live service, there has been a table in the Lobby labeled “Meet the Pastor.” People hop into the table for a quick hello and engage in the kind of face-to-face chatter and laughter that used to happen naturally at the door of the church.  At other churches, the pastor “walks around” the Lobby to visit the various tables.

9 Ways To Use Video Conferencing to Strengthen Teams and Deepen Engagement Click To Tweet

6. Meet the Musicians

Some churches set up a Meet the Musicians table. 

How many times have you wanted to know how and why certain hymn and song selections were made?  What is the meaning of the lyrics, and how do they correspond to that week’s scripture readings?  

With this creative use of video conferencing, a small set of people can more deeply explore the spirituality of the sung word. It is an enriching experience for both the worshipers and the worship team.

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7. Bring Your Dog

At one church experience over video conference, I joined a Lobby table with two other people. They already knew each other, and I sat down more or less uninvited. A fourth person joined — also uninvited.  It had high potential for awkwardness. 

However, the fourth person showed up with a dog in her lap. “Oh, I love dogs!” blurted one table mate.  “And here’s my dog!” said the second, and pointed her camera at the dog at her feet. I also have a dog, and I brought him on camera too. All of a sudden we had something personal in common!  

Every week, this church sets up a Table for dogs. Dog lovers just hop in for a quick doggie check-in. This simple trick has done more for inter-generational relationship building than many programmatic approaches that have produced lukewarm results. 

8. Find your tribe even in a video conference

We have seen some clever use of polls to help people find some affinities. Some favorites:

  • Who is Tom Brady? (or, fill in your non-controversial local sport/media celebrity). People vote, and then are invited to select a table to gather with like-minded people. 

  • Are you a Peter, a John, a Mary Magdalene, or a Thomas? This one is particularly relevant around Easter time. Greeters choose other scriptural references that touch on the subject of the week’s sermon or liturgy. 

  • About That Summer Vacation. Vote for your destination, and join a table to share ideas about where to go and what to do. 

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9. Matchmaking 

Some people, especially newcomers, may not find it easy to just join a table and start getting to know people. They could use a little bit of help greasing the wheels of social interaction. 

Video conference “greeters” connect with one of the “wallflowers” — people who are present but have not taken a seat — and initiate a direct message conversation thread. They sound out the guest a bit, gauge their interest in getting to know people this morning, and offer to make an introduction to one of the groups at a table.  

Summary

Video conferencing for your entire church is not the same thing as several dozen small conversations happening in your fellowship room. Breaking up the experience into self-organizing groups creates room for deeper, more engaging connections and strengthens teams.

How have you seen video conferencing strengthen teams? Share below!